For my daughter’s Girl Scout meeting last night, one of the moms brought a snack of string cheese and goldfish crackers. As the girls laughed and threw crackers in each other’s hair I fiddled with one of the cheese wrappers, from a Precious® Stringsters®. Each wrapper had a trivia question printed on the outside, with the answer inside, hidden under the cheese. I read one to the girls, and then they all began shouting out their questions. Many of the questions were animal-related. We had, for example, “What is a pig’s gruntle?” and “What does a cat with vibrissae have?”
Then someone read this question: “How many cows does it take to supply the NFL with enough leather for a year’s supply of footballs?”
“Three?” someone guessed. Nope. “Eighteen?” Nope. “One hundred?” Nope. We were stumped. The answer? 3,000. I was shocked and horrified. I had no idea.
I began feeling rather confused. I thought that footballs were made from a pig’s skin, and that this is why, in order to be law-abiding, people of The Book really shouldn’t play with footballs. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes you unclean, according to the eleventh chapter of Leviticus. (You might be surprised to know that most leather-covered Bibles are actually made with pig skin… I’m just saying.)
So, here are my modern day questions: why are footballs called “pigskins” if they are really made from cows? Can vegans play football? And can anyone, in good conscience, watch NFL football, including the Super Bowl, knowing full well that 3,000 cows have lost their skin each season?
Animal Skin and Sports Equipment
I’ve done a bit of research on animal skin and footballs and here is what I’ve found. Footballs are sometimes called “pigskins” because in olden days the balls were made with whatever crude materials were at hand, which often included a pig’s bladder. Modern footballs are now made exclusively with cow skin (a.k.a. “leather”). Professional and collegiate football teams are required to use the regulation real leather balls, but recreational and kids’ teams mostly use synthetic balls. I could not find any confirmation of the “3,000 cow skins per NFL season” claim made by Precious® Stringsters®, but if anything, the number appears a bit low. Data collected by David Gassko and Ian Stanczyk for the website Book of Odds sheds a bit of light. They estimate that one cow hide can produce approximately 20 footballs. Wilson Sporting Goods®, official supplier to the NFL, manufactures about 700,000 regulation footballs a year, requiring about 35,000 cow hides. NFL teams use about 11,520 footballs every regular season, just for games (not practices). 450 balls are used during the playoffs, and 76 balls are provided for each Super Bowl. Sounds like a lot more than 3,000 cows.
Unfortunately, football is not the only sport with a skin problem. Other sports that vegans might find morally vexing, based on typical ball-composition, include baseball, basketball, soccer, cricket, and volleyball. Which leaves us with bowling, golf, and ping pong. It is a sad day for vegans.
What’s worse, it isn’t just the balls. A great deal of sports equipment is made with leather. Think of all the football boots, baseball cleats and mitts, soccer cleats, tennis shoes, ballet slippers, and boxing gloves. My own two favorite sports—both ball-free—still rely heavily on animal skins. Most running shoes are made with at least some leather, as are mountain biking shoes (although animal-free versions do exist).
But don’t despair. A surprising number of options are available for the cruelty-free sports enthusiast. Many sports—even at the professional level—allow for balls to be made of leather or synthetic material, as long as they conform to certain size and weight requirements. Some sports are moving away from leather balls altogether. For example, many NBA and college basketball teams have switched to rubber. The change has nothing to do with ethics, of course—the rubber balls offer a sports advantage because the rubber is less slippery than leather, when wet with sweat. Still, we can cheer from the sidelines. Only football and baseball require that regulation balls be made from genuine cow skin.
For the recreational player, things are even better. Your participation in sports can be cruelty-free, if you are willing to do a little leg-work. If you shop around, you can buy vegan footballs, basketballs, baseballs, soccer balls, running shoes, boxing gloves, ballet slippers—you name it. (See, for example, Fair Trade Sports)
Tackling the Root of the Problem
When I asked my Girl Scout co-leader what she thought about the ethics of 3,000 cow-skin footballs, she offered this reply: “Well, the cows are probably slaughtered for their meat. Maybe it is good to use the skin, so it doesn’t go to waste.” To which I have to wonder, would you rather be slaughtered and have all parts of you put to good use, or would you rather be spared the slaughter in the first place? Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about footballs—which, when you put it in perspective, are really just a drop in the bucket—and should think instead about the hamburgers being sold at the stadium concession stands and during Super Bowl parties around the country.
I’m not suggesting that we stop enjoying Monday night football, but we might give some thought to where those NFL footballs come from. We can do our best to make our own sports participation cruelty-free, and we can give an extra cheer in honor of those cows who have some real skin in the game.
Dr. Jessica Pierce is a writer and bioethicist. Her writing challenges us to examine more closely our moral relationship to animals, to the natural world, and to each other. She has published six books, including Morality Play, The Ethics of Environmentally Responsible Health Care, and Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (with ethologist Marc Bekoff). Her most recent book, Final Odyssey: Aging, Dying, and Dignity in our Animal Companions, chronicles the decline and death of her 14-year old Vizsla Odysseus, and explores end-of-life care for our animal friends. Her website is here: http://jessicapierce.net/. Jessica lives in Colorado with her husband, daughter, and white-with-brown spotted dog Maya. She is an avid mountain biker and trail runner.